Beyond perhaps a few-dozen big-name fighters with known, established adversaries, boxers might be incorrectly perceived as lacking a nemesis when it’s just not true. Boxing is rife with rivalries.
And sometimes the most important fights on a given ledger aren’t against apex-level titans. Often they are, but not always.
Fighters may actually demonstrate trends of behavior and tendencies over the course of a series, regardless of class. Many factors — fewer mainstream television dates and greater purse disparities among them — lead to fewer fights in a given career these days, thus a lower tolerance when it comes to the acceptable number of total matches between two fighters.
Between 1927 and 1931, Billy Petrolle, a man who faced the best his generation had to offer yet never won a championship, squared up against poor man’s legend King Tut six times, splitting honors with royalty at three wins apiece.
Despite originally hailing from Duluth, Minn., early in his pro career Petrolle became battle-hardened in Fargo, N.D., leading to him earning the nickname “The Fargo Express.”
Petrolle was experienced on many levels and riding a high from a win over Jimmy McLarnin in November of 1930, leading press to question why Petrolle’s manager, Jack Hurley, would risk a potential crackerjack of a rematch against lightweight champion Tony Canzoneri, who Petrolle had already beaten, by facing a puncher like King Tut.
The answer, though, was the $12,000 that Petrolle made for the fight. After all, Petrolle was a square 2-2 against Tut, winning the first two times they faced off, and had something to prove after suffering a beating in fights three and four. A nice payday and a chance to make headway in their series made for an easy decision.
It was a short-term disaster. Tut flattened Petrolle in 24 seconds, leading some media members to suggest that Petrolle was “caught cold” without having proper time to loosen up in the St. Paul, Minn. venue. Others, like Boxing Writers Association president Wilbur Wood, said Petrolle “must start all over again.”
In the aftermath, Petrolle’s pre-scheduled bout against Filipino trial horse Lope Tenorio was scrapped and then moved to a different date, perhaps to allow him to get his confidence under control. Eventually he won a 10 round newspaper decision.
Tut held wins over Jimmy Goodrich, Billy Wallace and an older Babe Herman, in addition to the three wins over Petrolle. Apart from his style and persona, Tut had something of a claim to fame as a member of former heavyweight alpha Jack Dempsey’s crew.
Tut knew how to draw a crowd, however, as his start in combat sports saw him traveling a carnival circuit and playing the role of a “beat me if you can” wrestler before transitioning to a boxer. But in the pro game Tut earned a name as a flailing anvil of a fighter, moving his gloves constantly and always heaving lead.
On February 5, 1931, three days after their fifth meeting, it was announced that one of Tut’s managers, Ernie Fleigel, Petrolle’s manager Hurley, and Madison Square Garden matchmaker Tom McArdle had agreed to terms for another fight on Feb. 27. The contract stated that Tut would be taking home $15,000 and a large chunk of the gate.
And the AP reported, “If he fails to win on Friday, Petrolle threatens to quit the ring for good.”
Tut found his way to New York City a few days before the fight, stopping in at the landmark Stillman’s Gym to spar a while. A news wire read, “King Tut, the Minneapolis lightweight, will have to curb his rough tactics if he expects to make a hit with local fans when he fights Billy Petrolle at the Garden Friday night. While sparring with Joe Martin, a colored helper, before a crowded house at Stillman’s Gym, the king wrestled his man to the floor twice and pushed him down another time with a cuff on the back of the neck — which is not cricket.”
Just prior to the fight, odds swung from roughly 8-to-5 in favor of Tut, to about 2-to-1 Petrolle’s way, somewhat unexpectedly, given the history between the two and Tut’s early knockout win over Petrolle earlier the same month. Henry McLemore, United Press correspondent, said it may have been “because New York fans still remember the manner in which Petrolle smeared their idol McLarnin here last year and the fact that Tut new has shown no advantage in a New York ring.”
Les Conklin for the International News Service said, “If Tut beats Petrolle again tonight, he will go down into the ring records as another nemesis.”
The New York Daily News reported “blood curdling action” from start to finish. Tut had early success, catching Petrolle with big shots and staggering him in the 1st round. But then Tut was battered to the floor with a right uppercut in the following round, and again in round 3.
In round 4, Tut hit the deck a few times before the fight was halted with the King rolling about, failing to reach his feet.
Noted sportswriter Edward J. Neil reported from ringside, “…it was a savage, boisterous battle, replete with thrills and studded with fierce punching and knockdowns until the Minneapolis blonde dropped in the fourth from a left that barely touched his head.”
In other words Petrolle did exactly as he’d wished in weathering everything Tut could chuck his way, staving off early trouble and taking over the fight.
Tut had to be helped to his corner.
Minutes after the fight ended, some declared it a fix. Commissioner John J. Phelan ordered both fighters’ purses be withheld pending an investigation. “I don’t care to say anything about it at this time,” he said. “I will say that it looked to me to be the sort of fight that deserves a little investigation. Our action speaks for itself.”
It would later be reported that Tut suffered from acute appendicitis, which explains the strange way in which he kept falling.
Nothing came of the investigation, and both men wound up paid. But the fight marked a turning point for both men, as it was a downhill roll from this fight forward in both of their careers. Petrolle would go on to lose twice to McLarnin, then to Canzoneri and Barney Ross — in themselves certainly not shameful losses, but sign enough for Petrolle that it was time to leave.
Tut was a bit more stubborn, though. It took a handful more stoppage losses to convince him that his time was done. A tough out against future middleweight champion Ceferino Garcia saw Tut stretched in seven rounds in 1933.
In the end it might not have been the glamorous conclusion that such a series deserved, but it was sure a spectacle. Petrolle demonstrated enough separation from Tut to be able to claim himself the better fighter, but the rivalry remained numerically even, a true tie-breaker impossible.